Tuesday 20 November 2007

The English, the English, the English are best

I’ve always been a staunch opponent of regionalism, which is a con perpetrated by the European Union on the age-old imperial principle of “divide and rule”.

Luckily I now have a cast-iron supporting argument in the shape of the large pile of smouldering wreckage once known as Northern Rock. “Of course we can do anything for ourselves in this region that those fancy southern poofs can do in London.” Er, no. Despite having occasional access to the local media, I’ve refrained from commenting on this truly monumental cock-up because of the fierce regional loyalties it excites, and because I feel that I don’t really know much about banking. But then, clearly, neither did the company’s board.

The recipe seems to have been: take a cross section of the great and good of the North East (names that would sound equally appropriate as directors of any middle-ranking local railway company in the heyday of George Hudson); add a chief executive born and educated in the region, who joined the business as a graduate trainee; sprinkle a little bit of star dust and … oh dear.

Sadly, the Regent Centre in Gosforth was never destined to rank alongside Threadneedle Street or Wall Street in the list of global financial centres. Though the £40 billion black hole that its denizens have apparently created for HM Treasury may well earn them a sort of immortality in toilet books about Great Financial Disasters.

The real danger for me is that this regional failure becomes yet another weapon for those who seek to chip away at our national self-confidence. Already we have heard mutterings that the Bank of England mishandled the whole thing, precipitating the very run on the bank that they were seeking to avert. If only Northern Rock had been able to access the European Central Bank, they say, things might have been very different.

While it is true that the tripartite system of bank regulation invented by Chancellor G. Brown failed its first real test quite spectacularly, that must not be an excuse for throwing in the towel and going cap-in-hand to Brussels. We live in the most mature capitalist democracy on the planet. Within the lifetime of today’s old age pensioners, we were capable of governing a quarter of it. How can we suddenly have become so droolingly incapable that virtually every detail of our lives must be micro-managed from across the Channel?

I retain every confidence in England’s ability to compete with the very best in the world (except in football and cricket, obviously). But in the North East, we must continue to search for the global championship skills that will replace our former supremacy in exporting coal and building warships, guns and railways. What we can say with certainty is that mortgage banking ain’t it. Perhaps we should have stuck to the things we knew we were really good at, like baking stottie cakes, rather than trying to beat the Gnomes of Zurich at their own game.

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